When Jordan Peele said he wanted to exclusively make black stories, some people got angry; but let’s discuss why we actually need more diversity.
Before starting, I want to offer a disclaimer for all the White people reading this, especially White men: this post is probably going to make you uncomfortable. That’s okay, it’s an uncomfortable topic. But I’m going to ask you to try and listen what I have to say any way.
This isn’t an attack on you. Your skin color doesn’t make you a bad person, I don’t think your life is easy, free from pain, or that you’ve never struggled because you’re White. I’m not accusing you of anything, and this isn’t a personal attack. If you feel yourself getting angry or defensive, step away and take a break, come back and finish it later. I’d also recommend checking out this feature from Teaching Tolerance, even if you think you know everything there is to know about racism. These links are also helpful.
HELLO FROM THE OTHER SIDE
Being excluded sucks. There’s nothing quite like the pain of being left out or told, “Sorry, but we don’t have anything for you.”
As a half-Black, queer person, I’ve gotten used to not being included. For me, it’s an accepted fact that I will rarely see romances like mine, people like me, or stories about my experience on the screen. If I go into a bookstore and ask for a work of fantasy with a queer, black protagonist, I will be given the look. The, “Why are being so difficult?” look. The, “Why do you want something so weird and obscure?” As if gay black people don’t exist, or I just asked for a book about string theory and turnips in ancient Mayan.
Shopping for my wedding was depressing. What should have been a fun experience turned into a painful reminder that my marriage was “niche.” Wedding paperwork, matching Mr. and Mrs. glasses, photo ads, everything was geared towards straight couples. When I had to explain, repeatedly, to confused shop employees that there was no groom, I once again received the “look” and found myself apologizing for being “difficult” as I crossed out “groom” on all the paperwork and replaced it with “bride”.
My mother had a similar experience when shopping for wedding cake toppers back in the 80s. She wanted a White bride with a Black groom and received nothing but glares for daring to ask for the same thing non-mixed couples got all the time. In the end she bought a cake topper with a White couple and colored the groom in with magic marker, hoping no one would notice how crappy it looked.
I’m still pretty lucky, I pass as White, which means I don’t have to put up with anywhere near as much bullshit as my dad and darker family members do. They’re all too well aware that “skin tone” never means their skin tone and decent hair care products are hard to come by.
When you’re not straight and White, you’re not the default, and you’re used to being left out. It sucks, but we get used to it, even though we shouldn’t have to.
So, on the rare occasions people like me do get to see ourselves in stories it’s a BIG. FUCKING. DEAL.
Like a lunar eclipse during a meteor shower and the aurora borealis. It’s such a rare occurrence to see ourselves in books or on screen that when it does finally happen, we all freak out and celebrate and make sacrifices to the diversity gods.
When Get Out was released in theaters, it was like Christmas for Black horror fans, but without the crushing debt and stress. Not only was this a Black horror movie, it was a good Black horror movie. It won awards.
If you’ve watched Shudder’s Horror Noire documentary, you know it’s pretty slim pickings when it comes to Black heroes in quality horror movies. Even more so when it comes to Asian-American, Hispanic/Latinx, American Indian, LGBTQIA, and disabled heroes. Yes, there are some out there. But compared to the selection of films with straight, white heroes, it’s like we got stuck with the choice of freezer-burned vanilla or chocolate ice cream while everyone else gets to go crazy in the Ben & Jerry’s factory.
YES, IT’S A REAL PROBLEM
For those of you who need a little more proof than my say so, here’s the data from the University of Southern California to back it up. For the linkphobic, let me summarize; From 2007 to 2017 (the year Get Out was released), the number of White characters in top-grossing films hasn’t change a bit.
Over 70% of film characters are White, while only 12.1% are Black, 4.8% Asian, and 6.2% Hispanic/Latinx. If you’re Middle Eastern, American Indian, or Mixed Race, well, get used to never seeing yourself on screen.
You’re also pretty screwed if you’re LGBT or disabled. Out of the top 100 movies of 2017, less than 1% of the characters depicted were gay, bisexual, or lesbian, and none were trans (keep in mind roughly 10% of the population identifies as something other than cisgender and straight) and only 2.5% of the characters were disabled (even though the US census reports that 20% of Americans have some form of disability).
Hopefully we can all agree, Hollywood, and by extension, horror films, are severely lacking in the diversity department and that it’s an issue. If you’re not entirely clear on why diversity in media is so important for everyone (yes, including straight, White people), I suggest you read this, this, and this. They explain it much better, and in more depth, than I ever could.
PEELE-ING BACK THE CONTROVERSY
Thankfully, minority writers, and actors, and directors are pushing back and trying to give us new, diverse, awesome stories, the kind they wanted to see when they were kids, and now even more people can see themselves on the silver screen too. Yay! But then Jordan Peele said, “I don’t see myself casting a white dude as the lead in my movie.” And a lot of White folks got really, really mad. People were complaining about “reverse racism” and how White directors would get in trouble for saying that, and how it wasn’t fair.
This was something I struggled to understand at first. Like I said above, I’ve gotten so used to being left out in so many aspects in my life that it didn’t even occur to me that some people had never experienced it. “Why are they so upset?” I wondered. “Everyone gets left out sometimes, that’s life and life has never been fair. Besides,” I mused, “they already have tons of movies with straight, White protagonists. Why would it bother them if the rest of us got some more?”
Then I realized that for many White people, this was their first experience with being told something wasn’t for them because of their race, and it felt like a huge rejection. When I asked a White friend about it, she told me, “When you’re used to being the default, it feels like a punishment when you aren’t.” Okay, I admit, that must suck, but eventually you’re going to have to learn, like we did, not everything is made for you.
Yes, I know I must seem terribly unsympathetic for someone who just complained how much being left out sucks, but guys, that’s life. Minorities have been dealing with being left out of media forever, I think White people will survive if the number of White characters in film drops from 70% to 60%. It’s only scary because it’s new to see Disney princesses with brown skin, Black superhero movies that don’t suck, and same sex-romances.
No one is trying to take anything from White people, we just want our fair share.
I’m sure that for some White folk, this must feel like some sort of reverse discrimination, but go back up and look at those numbers again. When less than 15%, or even 1% of the character on screen look like you, you have the right to complain. When it’s 70%, you’re just being petty.
That would be like if your mom always bought awesome, expensive toys for your siblings — so many toys they could never possibly play with them all. And all you had was one or two lousy dolls, one of which was some crappy Chinese knock-off. In that situation you’d probably feel pretty peeved, yeah? So, you beg your mom for a new toy for your birthday, after all your siblings have so many, could you please just have one more, and she finally agrees.
Now try to imagine what would go through your mind when one of your siblings throws the tantrum to end all tantrums because mom bought you a new toy for your birthday, but they didn’t get one. As someone with three siblings, I know what my reaction would be: “What the foxtrotting fuck!? You have ALL. THESE. TOYS. Are you seriously mad that I got one? It’s not even your birthday, what is your damage?!?” (By the way, if you did have to experience something like this growing up, I’m incredibly sorry, and your parents are awful people.)
White people, I’m sorry to say, but you’re the sibling with all the toys in this scenario. We don’t judge or resent you for having more toys than us, but if you are throwing a tantrum just because Jordan Peele is giving us something and not you, then yeah, we’re going to be rolling our eyes.
LESS YOU, MORE ‘US’
White directors and writers are already out there making White movies, for White audiences, even though they don’t describe them as such, and Jordan Peele’s choice to write Black stories with Black characters won’t change that. White actors are still going to be able to find plenty of work. Films like Iron Man, the Dark Knight, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, the original Star Wars trilogy, Psycho, Saw, and Jaws are all White movies, directed and written by White people with White heroes. They’re White movies, and I love and enjoy them, but I’d seriously like a little variation guys.
I mean, I love cheeseburgers, but if I had to eat them every day, I’d be miserable and sick of beef. White movies are cheeseburgers, and here Peele is, opening this awesome sushi restaurant so we can all try something different. Peele is not saying he hates cheeseburgers, or you can’t enjoy cheeseburgers if you want them, just that his restaurant is going to serve Sushi and focus exclusively on delicious sushi.
Because here’s the part of the quote people always seem to miss, “Not that I don’t like white dudes, but I’ve seen that movie.” We’ve ALL seen that movie. We want something new and different. And even if Peele’s films are Black stories (actual Black stories, none of that White savior Green Book bullshit) with Black actors, it doesn’t stop non-Black people from enjoying them. Just look how popular Get Out was! Audiences of all races enjoyed it and could sympathize and relate to a Black main character.
We need more diverse stories, and hopefully Hollywood will keep giving them to us. I hope that anyone angry at Jordan Peele’s comments will realize that White actors and audiences aren’t losing anything, it just means we’re going to have more stories to choose from. Black horror fans can see themselves in more than one kind of movie, and Black actors, writers, and directors will gain more opportunities. Hopefully it will lead to other racial minorities telling their stories on the big screen.
I want to see an American Indian woman killing zombies with her girlfriend, or a Latino dad saving his kids from home invaders. I want a woman who uses a wheelchair discovering the mysteries of a haunted house, or a genderqueer person who kills vampires. I want to see new stories with people I’ve never seen on screen before, because diversity is the spice of life — and I’m getting tired of cheeseburgers.
And if that still feels threatening or offensive, well, sorry, but some stories just aren’t about you. You can either learn to accept it or continue throwing a tantrum because you didn’t get a new toy.
Michael Payne wrote:
Extremely thoughtful. Although I don’t like singling out any group for exclusion, perhaps another way of thinking about this is actually starting to include other groups that haven’t been allowed to participate.